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Juno boosts CAR-T presence with $80m German acquisition

Stage Cell Therapeutics will contribute in process development and manufacturing

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Juno Therapeutics has laid claim to another piece of the immuno-oncology territory by buying Germany's Stage Cell Therapeutics in a cash-and-share deal valued at around $80m.

The US company is one of several companies vying to develop a new treatments for cancer based on CAR-T (chimeric antigen receptor T-cell) therapy and - rather than adding new product candidates - Stage Cell adds to its capabilities in process development and manufacturing.

Juno said the deal provides a technology platform that will help it isolate, activate and manufacture cell therapies, and will also reduce the long-term costs associated with producing them. 

The CAR-T approach involves taking T cells from a patient, engineering them to recognise and hone in on cancer surface proteins and then re-infusing them as an anti-tumour therapy. 

Companies developing CAR-Ts are among the hottest stocks in the biotech field at the moment, riding on a wave of interest in immuno-oncology that has already seen new checkpoint inhibitor therapies such as such as Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo (nivolumab) and Merck & Co's Keytruda (pembrolizumab) reach the market.

The promise of the technology lies in its broad applicability across multiple cancer types and that has sparked a flurry of M&A and licensing activity in the CAR-T space, with Merck Serono forging a  $941m alliance with Intrexon in March, Amgen signing a $1bn deal with Kite Pharma in January and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) paying up to $625m for rights to MacroGenics' MGD011 candidate towards the end of 2014.

Stage Cell's platform - known as Streptamer - can be used to make the CAR-T production process more efficient and will help Juno achieve its objective of setting up commercial-scale manufacturing for its lead candidate JCAR015, in trials for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

At the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) conference earlier this year JCAR015 demonstrated a 91% complete remission rate (CRR) in 22 evaluable relapsed or refractory paediatric ALL patients.

Streptamer will also be applicable to Juno's other main technology platform, the development of T cell receptor  (TCR) technology for modifying T cells so they recognise antigens both on the surface and within the tumour cell.

"This important acquisition is driven by our strategy to have best-in-class process development and manufacturing capabilities," said Juno chief executive Hans Bishop. The company recently started the ball rolling on its manufacturing scale-up with the leasing of a facility near Seattle in Washington.

Novartis is currently leading the CAR-T field with its CTL019 candidate which is in phase II for ALL but reported slightly disappointing data in a phase I mesothelioma study at AACR.

Article by
Phil Taylor

13th May 2015

From: Sales

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